Sharing information

To follow up on an earlier post, I thought I’d go into a little more detail about sharing information. This will probably be my last post on the subject for a while as I would rather get back to topics like plants, gardening, and nursery news; which may be more along the lines of what most of you expect to read here. Besides, I don’t want to sound like some kind of incurably snotty, cantankerous person who thinks everyone else ought to do things my way just because. I’m discussing this subject in the hope that some of these ideas will strike a chord with other nursery owners, and also to give gardeners/nursery shoppers an inside glimpse at the industry.

The nursery industry faces many challenges to which it must adapt. And while other uncompetitive businesses get subsidized and bailed out with our tax money, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon for nurseries. We are on our own. What challenges am I talking about? Well, to name a few: the sudden rise of box stores. The lack of interest of gardening among the younger generation. The increasing tendency for landscape plants to be installed by outside firms, reflecting the lack of interest from the homeowner. The shrinking sizes of lots and increasing popularity of condominiums. The greater need (whether actual or perceived) our clientele feels to allocate funds to gas and food leaving less for “optional” expenditures such as gardening. And much more!

This is scary stuff folks. There are a number of things we must do to survive, and perhaps I should start a series on this topic. (One thing I might discuss later is the unhelpful tendency of different kinds of independent nurseries to bicker against each other, each thinking their kind is superior. I’ve about had it with conventional nurseries looking down on specialty nurseries, and [to a lesser degree] vice versa. Each fills its own niche and we have to unite to survive.) But I think something else needs to be discussed first, which is, the enormous potential that exists for nurseries to be empowered by sharing information. This includes both sharing with each other, and sharing with the public.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. At a premier retail nursery where I once worked long ago, near the registers, is a rotating “tower” full of splendid informational handouts. I had always thought this information – and a wealth of information it was – should be added to the nursery web page, since it is the sort of valuable content that has the potential to generate more interest in the nursery for anyone who visits the web site. But the answer was always no, if people want to get that sort of information they have to get their wee buttses down to the store and shop.

Then a couple months ago I was back just to pay a friendly visit (well and to have them sign a paper I needed, but it was still a nice visit), and I mentioned it again just to see what the response would be. Old-schoolery prevails, and nothing has changed. If people want the information on these handouts, they have to come to the store and get it. To that was added, if we put this on the web site, then people will read it and go shop somewhere else.

Folks, that’s not how it works anymore (if it ever was?). True, some people will read the information and go shop somewhere else. But as those are mostly the rude or lazy people, probably representing a small minority of readers, you don’t need to rely on their business anyways. More importantly, I bet that nearly all such people were never potential customers to begin with.

I think most people who are interested enough to look at your web site in the first place will be excited and grateful to receive all this information. They will appreciate that the nursery cares about their website, and become excited to visit. Adding a lot of content to a web site usually generates much more interest in the business – people are like, “Hey, we like this business and what it is about, perhaps we had better go check it out!” And I really think most customers – most valuable customers, at least – think more along those lines in this day and age. The bottom line is, the more you can generate interest in your business online, the more people will come, and the farther they will come, to shop.

As for nurseries sharing information with each other, this has always occurred in a limited way among individuals who happen to be friends, but outside of that context I believe there is generally much resistance. Among nursery owners I’ve met, some are generous, some are conceited, and others—perhaps the majority—just plain don’t want to think about it and/or fail to recognize its importance. (Of course now that I know what warning signs to look for I would not want to work for either of the latter varieties.) I have so far only made it to a few WSNLA meetings, but I am aware that sharing is quite generous with them at certain times. However, many nurseries don’t wish to join the WNSLA because they aren’t interested in being connected (which I am—my skepticism about the WNSLA has more to do with the relevance in today’s economy of trade organizations in general). And the WNSLA is only a regional organization, which is limiting. What about all that can be learned from other nurseries across the country or even on the other side of the world? It’s the digital age folks, and this stuff isn’t out of reach. All we have to do is embrace it. If you’re interested, I have already plugged the Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries group as an excellent place to start.

So, nursery owners and employees, here are a few questions to ask yourself. Are you sharing information as freely and generously as possible? If not, what would happen if you did? Is it possible that you’re thinking backwards about your marketing practices? Are your secrets really so worth protecting that it won’t do to share them with other nurseries or gardeners? If you were to suddenly generate a lot more interest in your business would you really have that much to fear from your competition?

Since I wrote, and still have, five or six of the handouts which are still available for customer perusal on the rotating tower at the aforementioned nursery, perhaps I ought to put these on my website with a link to the nursery for whom I wrote them. Now there’s a funny idea. No, wait, I can’t put them on my web site. If you want them, you have to come over here and get them. And don’t leave until you buy something. Preferably a lot.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. trey
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 17:20:30

    Excellent article. There are no secrets anymore anyway. Sharing information between nurseries or customers is the way forward. Information is meant to be free. The more information we provide the better the decisions we, and our customers can make.


  2. Stephanie Fleming
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 17:43:12

    we have been taking all of our how to and care articles and making them so they can be downloaded..on our web site. 80 years of informational pamphlets. Also, redoing old articles.. It’s what our customers want.. ..Trey is right, there are no secrets..


  3. Ian
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 10:33:24

    That’s encouraging – at least someone is doing it! Information is meant to be free – broadly speaking, I agree.


  4. Heidi Kaster
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 19:00:10

    Hi Ian, Thanks so much for the kind words. I am so thankful for people like you who can grow cool plants for me to have at my nusery. I do strongly agree in supporting small and local folks like you. I will look at all the small growers first before i get to the big wholesalers. Keep up the good work and I think we should try to help each other survive in the struggling economy.


  5. David R.
    Jun 29, 2011 @ 17:20:40

    Ian, I’m a long time member of the TNLA in Texas although I don’t agree with their politics. I do this just to have my foot in the door in case I might need them. For the most part, many of the growers mass produce many of the same things. If they have difficulty in growing some plants they usually drop them. I think/hope that there will always be some demand for rare and unusual plants.

    For folks moving back into the city, you would think there would be some demand for some nifty containers and something hardy that would look good in them. Futurist see people growing vegetables vertically everywhere. Who knows what the future holds but it has to include plant life.


  6. Ian
    Jul 01, 2011 @ 14:58:39

    Heidi, anytime – I owe you one for helping me get those greenhouses! I trust you’re trying hard to sell all our stuff 🙂

    David, I’m getting irritated with the WSNLA for another reason I will not disclose now but may later if it is not addressed. I also feel the organization may be too broad for its own good, to attempt to encompass everyone from landscape architects and services, to wholesale, retail, and specialty nurseries. Soon I’ll have to put out some feelers about whether maintaining my membership is really worth it, or if it would be better to allocate that annual $200 to joining a few good plant societies (which I may soon do anyways!).

    I’m confident that plants and gardeners are in our future and that the Northwest drought tolerant concept has potential – and you’re certainly right about home-grown edibles too! With the imminent downfall of mega-scale food production and processing, this area is only going to get bigger.


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